Thursday, April 10, 2008

So much for the information age?

The Chronicle has an article up (that I rather like but have some major problems with) about a professor's discussion regarding rendition. It's called "So Much for the Information Age."

I teach a seminar called "Secrecy: Forbidden Knowledge." I recently asked my class of 16 freshmen and sophomores, many of whom had graduated in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes and had dazzling SAT scores, how many had heard the word "rendition."

Not one hand went up.

This is after four years of the word appearing on the front pages of the nation's newspapers, on network and cable news, and online. This is after years of highly publicized lawsuits, Congressional inquiries, and international controversy and condemnation. This is after the release of a Hollywood film of that title, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, and Reese Witherspoon.

I was dumbstruck. Finally one hand went up, and the student sheepishly asked if rendition had anything to do with a version of a movie or a play.

I nodded charitably, then attempted to define the word in its more public context. I described specific accounts of U.S. abductions of foreign citizens, of the likely treatment accorded such prisoners when placed in the hands of countries like Syria and Egypt, of the months and years of detention. I spoke of the lack of formal charges, of some prisoners' eventual release and how their subsequent lawsuits against the U.S. government were stymied in the name of national security and secrecy.

The students were visibly disturbed. They expressed astonishment, then revulsion. They asked how such practices could go on.

I told them to look around the room at one another's faces; they were seated next to the answer. I suggested that they were, in part, the reason that rendition, waterboarding, Guantánamo detention, warrantless searches and intercepts, and a host of other such practices have not been more roundly discredited. I admit it was harsh.


Still, it is hard to reconcile the students' lack of knowledge with the notion that they are a part of the celebrated information age, creatures of the Internet who arguably have at their disposal more information than all the preceding generations combined. Despite their BlackBerrys, cellphones, and Wi-Fi, they are, in their own way, as isolated as the remote tribes of New Guinea. They disprove the notion that technology fosters engagement, that connectivity and community are synonymous. I despair to think that this is the generation brought up under the banner of "No Child Left Behind." What I see is the specter of an entire generation left behind and left out.

It is not easy to explain how we got into this sad state, or to separate symptoms from causes. Newspaper readership is in steep decline. My students simply do not read newspapers, online or otherwise, and many grew up in households that did not subscribe to a paper. Those who tune in to television "news" are subjected to a barrage of opinions from talking heads like CNN's demagogic Lou Dobbs and MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Fox's Bill O'Reilly and his dizzying "No Spin Zone." In today's journalistic world, opinion trumps fact (the former being cheaper to produce), and rank partisanship and virulent culture wars make the middle ground uninhabitable. Small wonder, then, that my students shrink from it.

Then, too, there is the explosion of citizen journalism. An army of average Joes, equipped with cellphones, laptops, and video cameras, has commandeered our news media. The mantra of "We want to hear from you!" is all the rage, from CNN to NPR; but, although invigorating and democratizing, it has failed to supplant the provision of essential facts, generating more heat than light. Many of my students can report on the latest travails of celebrities or the sexual follies of politicos, and can be forgiven for thinking that such matters dominate the news — they do. Even those students whose home pages open onto news sites have tailored them to parochial interests — sports, entertainment, weather — that are a pale substitute for the scope and sweep of a good front page or the PBS NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (which many students seem ready to pickle in formaldehyde).

I sympathize with professor Gup. As one of the teachers of the Introduction to Global Studies course here at Whittier, I have felt first hand this frustration with students' apparent ignorance of current events, and all too often their apathy. That said, I cannot completely agree. First of all, students today actually seem quite engaged in issues regarding the environment, they are far more anti-war than most students I can remember in the early 80's (or, said another way, they can see first hand some of lies and contradictions of our government), and students sense on some level that things are really changing, for better and/or worse, in the wake of globalization. (Note to self: There are people who study this. I should find out who and see if students are more engaged or less. Maybe those researchers even have a blog!)

Prof Gup's premise seems quite problematic to me as well. He is assuming that reading newspapers and watching CNN is the portal to being informed. I'm not so sure. The last century during which major newspapers and television channels dominated local markets did NOT lead our citizenry to become better citizens. Participation in our system of government was declining and a whole political party (Republicans) sought office for 40 years on the basis that government was in general a bad thing, that they should, to paraphrase Grover Norquist, "starve the beast." (Except for the military, of course). Political blogging and the internet have become a viable and informative way to engage in the political process, and that power is being courted by the big players--key evidence that, in spite of his "uninformed" students, something is afoot.

His premise also assumes that these major news factories are really informing the public. The record here is mixed too. Are people who watch Fox News more or less informed than someone who does not? Some interesting studies have shown that viewers of ol' Rupert's news outlet are somewhat likely to be ill-informed rather than well-informed. And CNN? What do Glenn Beck or Lou Dobbs inspire in their viewers other than fear and loathing? I'm sorry, Dr. Gup, you're letting these news outlets off far too easily and you are not considering the ground-breaking work done by Talking Points Memo or Media Matters (and any other number of groups). Do I need to bring up Judith Miller or the Washington Times (Go Moonies!!!)?

The information age will never be a panacea for the problems of our world until we accept that the media that we do have do not really represent us. Millionaire "reporters" and pundits by definition and constitution will not serve the public's interest well because they are simply too far removed from those concerns. The electoral process, as imperfect as it is, is still less forgiving than the clubby major newspapers and networks. I mean, the average income of the fictive families on television during the 50's was about 35K (adjusted for inflation). The average family in sitcoms now earns approximately 200k per year. I say this just for comparison's sake. Our media has become more elitist and less engaged with the public all while pandering more. I think that our mainstream media--those who bear the biggest responsibility for informing the public over the public airwaves and with their publicly chartered corporations--are much more to blame for the state of things than any other single thing. If we are going to begin casting blame, let's start with news corporations that have been thinking a lot more about their shareholders than about their public responsibilities. Indeed, we have decades of interesting data, so let's look there and let blogging reach its second decade before we start casting stones about technology.

But I will agree with Prof. Gup on this:

The noted American scholar Robert M. Hutchins said, decades ago: "The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens." He warned that "the death of a democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment." I fear he was right.

So do I. It's just that I fear that this apathy will come to us via our media outlets determined to tell us everything about Britney Spears and nothing (or something on A22) about that little thing called rendition.